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  • Debra Palmen

We've hit the ground running

Updated: Aug 26, 2022

By golly we hit the ground running at the Sunbury Antiques Market on the outskirts of London. This is one of Europe’s premier antiques markets, and always worth a look around if you’re in London on the right day. Lots of French dealers pop over the Channel to take stands at Sunbury so the range of interesting pieces on offer is terrific.

Mind you, the prices can reflect the fact that you’re shopping in a horribly expensive city, in competition with vast numbers of upmarket antiques dealers, interior decorators and even movie and TV set designers. Visiting European Royalty often come to Sunbury market, plus a bunch of American movie stars. All of whom have bigger wallets than me.

But if you move quickly and hunt assiduously, there are bargains to be found. And I found them!

Within about 30 seconds of stepping into the market I had spent over $300 and Doug was already expressing concern that I didn’t keep up that pace for the rest of the day.

Relax Dougie, I said. It’s all under control, I said. He didn’t comment any further, but I did get a Yeah, right look. He normally nags me about not spending enough, though, so he can’t have it both ways.

The thing was, I’d found Louie, a fabulous chappie who has access to one of London’s last high-quality landfills.

There used to be a number of these sites dotted about the capital, but most were built over before they could be fully excavated. That’s a real pity, and explains why I’ve been finding it so hard to find great quality old landfill glass and ceramics for the last few years.

But I hit the motherlode this time. Louie had brought along 40 beautiful blue-glazed floor polishing jars that I always look for but only occasionally find. These ceramic jars often have a deep blue matt glaze, but Louie had also unearthed quite a few with pale blue and lavender glazes. And I was the first to see them, so I bought them all.

I told him I had sold many of these lovely little jars to florists in Australia, because pretty well any flower looks gorgeous when displayed in them.

He said he’d been busy excavating the site so he hadn’t offered these jars for sale for some time because he prefers to wait until he has a good number to offer. He told me that after a big dig he then usually sells his entire supply to a couple of London’s most upmarket florists, who would now be disappointed they hadn’t arrived a bit earlier at the market. Suffer in yer jocks, upmarket London florists! They’re all coming home with me.

I also obtained three small ceramic ginger jars from Louie, about 200 years old, and one of them might have to stay at my house.

But best of all, he also had a number of the excellent old ceramic marmalade jars that people have been asking me about ever since I sold out of my last stash. I told everyone that I couldn’t guarantee finding any, but boy oh boy Louie had plenty. And I bought them all.

When I buy stock it’s intended to last 12 months, until we can go on our next trip, but I think I can guarantee that these marmalade jars won’t last very long at all. The fact that they’re now scarce because the number of landfills they’re sourced from has been drastically reduced means that I really can’t guarantee getting any more. So lucky I bought up while I could.

I’ll photograph a selection of my purchases as we pack, to show you all.

There was a heavy emphasis on interesting semi-industrial pieces among the dealers offering goods at Sunbury this time, which suited me fine. I snapped up 12 antique Indian fabric printing blocks, which look lovely as hand-carved wooden sculptures in themselves, although I’ve met a surprising number of people who work with textiles and like to use these blocks for their original purpose. It’s a highly skilled craft to get the pattern aligning exactly, and takes years of practice. The one or two pieces I might keep will just be decorative, I’m afraid. Or maybe I’ll give textile printing a try. We’ll see.

Talking about textiles, we found a French dealer offering good quality cotton tea-towels at entirely reasonable prices, so we scooped up a lot. They have white stripes on smoky red or taupe bases, and I think they’ll prove popular. I also found a couple of wooden dough troughs, but made from cut panels rather than hand-carved all from one piece of wood. They’re old but they have quite a modern look which will appeal to people who don’t go for the more rustic style.

And I bought three mesh-based fruit and flower drying trays from one French dealer who tried so hard to flirt me into a higher price. But I was in Shopping Mode and immune to his charms, much to his astonishment.

So I bought up big at Sunbury market. Then it was time for the long trek up to Lancashire, to visit Bygone Times, an old mill complex that’s said to be thoroughly haunted. I’ve never had a ghostly encounter there, but plenty of people claim to have. Perhaps it’s because I’m in Shopping Mode, and immune to spiritual shenanigans.

It was slim pickings for me this time, although I did walk away with a number of blue and white Cornishware jugs and bowls, plus one super-rare Cornishware coffee pot. It wasn't the bargain I'd hoped for, but I’d never seen a Cornishware coffee pot before so I had to carry it off.

I also found Russian dominos and English dominos in nice bakelite boxes, a German glass lidded box featuring ducks (lots of people love ducks), and a good variety of other bits and bobs. And yay! I found the first clear glass lidded butter dishes of the trip. I can’t buy enough glass butter dishes. Customers clamour for them, and I always sell out quickly.

One thing I’m considering keeping is a striking French lidded terrine pot, featuring a moulded hare’s head on the lid. It’s brown ceramic, and if you’ve read my book you know as a general rule you should steer clear from anything brown. But this is a lovely piece and I do like hares, so an exception was made. It’s damn considerate of the French to stamp ‘Made in France’ in English on the bottom of so many of their ceramics. Makes life a touch easier for those of us whose French language skills suck.

Then it was on into Yorkshire. The autumnal colour changes have come early to England this year, so the landscape is very pretty. And there are millions of white daisies and lovely mauve Michaelmas daisies everywhere you look. With all the late blooming flowers, green, green fields and hedgerows, yellow and red-leafed trees, grey drystone walls and golden stone buildings, Yorkshire is lovely right now. And although we packed our gloves and beanies, so far it’s been t-shirts and sunglasses, although we’ll see how long that lasts.

First stop in Yorkshire was the Elsecar Heritage Centre, home of the café that makes one of the best pork pies in all of England. Stilton and caramelized onion topping, tasty pork filling and pastry that is exactly right. Mmmm. Pork pies made in Australia all too often get the pastry horribly wrong, and that just won’t do. There’s a proper way to make pork pies, and the Elsecar Heritage Centre café has it nailed. Mmmm. So that was lunch (and the next breakfast) sorted. Then on to the shopping.

For some years I’ve been buying interesting landfill ceramics from a fellow at this centre, and he owns the site he excavates so unlike the London landfills, his will only end when he reaches rock bottom. This time he’d excavated a number of elegant old Chinese ginger jars, hundreds of years old, some with plain taupe glaze, some with blue and white abstract designs, and all quite lovely. Just wait ‘til you see them. They look stylish by themselves, but I’ve also seen interior decorators put small succulents or orchids in them, and that’s a look I’m going to try myself.

An excellent find was five West African spirit masks, all dating from the 1930s. Not the sort of thing you expect to find in the wilds of Yorkshire. I think I have a spot for them at my house, otherwise they’ll end up as stock in due course. At the other end of the scale, I found a striking turquoise-glazed French cockerel from about the 1960s. So shopping at Elsecar was downright multicultural and a bit of fun. Plus yummy pork pies. Mmmm.

Then down to Sheffield, which has a variety of antiques shops that to be frank usually aren’t worth the effort of navigating the city’s heavy traffic and higgledy-piggledy road network to get to. But we had the time so we plunged into the fray. If you can’t find decent vintage English cutlery from the traditional home of decent English cutlery, you’re not looking. So now I have a good variety of nice bone handled bread knives, cake servers, and some really lovely knives with beautifully engraved blades. They’ll clean up nicely and I got them for great prices which I will naturally pass on to you.

How nice to be surrounded again by northern English accents. We lived in Cheshire for three years when I ran the Australian Consulate in Manchester, and the accent and dialect of the region is distinctive. My all-time favourite line of television dialogue is Get a jog on you sour-faced slag, 'fore I slap you silly. Doug hates it, but I've been waiting for years to say this to someone. At one shop I was getting a little impatient while I waited for a woman to get off the phone so I could pay for my purchases. She put her hand over the mouth-piece - Trouble at mill, she told me. Instantly I understood and nodded sympathetically. Any woman with a man in her life has had trouble at mill at some point.

Next stop will be the English Midlands. The Peterborough Fair is the first of the Big Three – antiques fairs you really must attend if you’re going to take professional antiques buying seriously. The TV program Bargain Hunt often films at this fair, and we’ve been filmed for the opening credits 19 times but only appeared once – and that had to be time I was having a particularly bad hair day, didn’t it? So I shall brush my hair, try to look less jetlagged and stop grimacing so much at the production crew standing in the way of my shopping.

More soon.

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